Orlando's next step: to live up to buildup COULD IT BE MAGIC? NBA PREVIEW

November 03, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

Ask Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal about his team, and he talks of the best starting five in the league. Ask newly

acquired forward Horace Grant -- who picked up three championship rings with the Chicago Bulls -- about his new team, and he says that winning his fourth ring is inevitable.

But through all the buildup, the magazine cover stories, the media predictions, coach Brian Hill tells his team to check the history books. They don't have to look back very far.

"I try to tell them to forget about the press clippings. We've beeto the playoffs once, and haven't won a playoff game," said Hill, referring to his team's three-and-out performance against the Indiana Pacers in the first round of last season's playoffs. "We're guardedly optimistic."

Forget baseball. Forget hockey. The NBA season tips off tomorrow night with promises of another wide-open season. The Houston Rockets are the reigning NBA champions, and are essentially unchanged from last season. Neither the Rockets nor the New York Knicks is a shoo-in for a return trip to the NBA Finals.

No, this should be the season where the champagne will be flowing in a new setting.

In addition to Orlando, there are the Phoenix Suns, who fizzled in their title run last season. But the team was strengthened by some off-season maneuvering in which players took pay cuts to come aboard, and if Charles Barkley can stay healthy the Suns should be back in the hunt.

"It's becoming pretty clear that we're pretty hard to stop," said Suns coach Paul Westphal, after his team averaged 129.4 points in its first five preseason games.

The Seattle SuperSonics improved by adding a real -- albeit aging -- low-post center in Bill Cartwright, and put a lot more dollars into the already bulging pockets of Shawn Kemp.

The Denver Nuggets, last season's playoff surprise, added veteran Dale Ellis, the game's greatest three-point shooter.

The Golden State Warriors finally got the center they have long needed, trading forward Billy Owens to the Miami Heat for Rony Seikaly yesterday. Now if they can get holdout Chris Webber back in uniform and keep their players out of the hospital, they will be hard to beat.

And if the San Antonio Spurs can find a way to get Dennis Rodman to conform, they might be able to mount a strong challenge to the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets.

In case you didn't notice, most of those teams are in the Western Conference. "Over the last few years, the West has gotten more and more talented teams," said Seattle coach George Karl. "It's wide-open. It's the most competitive basketball in the league."

The same can't be same in the East, where age is creeping up on the conference champion Knicks.

That should clear the way for Orlando to challenge for the Eastern title. Anfernee Hardaway ended his holdout, point guard Brian Shaw left Miami and took a pay cut to join the Magic and Grant came on board.

Grant is not in Orlando to be the man -- O'Neal holds that honorGrant's role will not differ from the one he had in Chicago, where Grant at times detested playing a supporting role to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

"There's not going to be a lot of plays for him here, and he knowthat," Hill said. "But he became an All-Star doing those other things, and he can continue to be an All-Star."

What Grant does for Orlando is provide leadership and some power at power forward. That position has been one of the Magic's weakest, and Grant should be able to help O'Neal by keeping defenders honest.

That's the reason for the all the excitement in Orlando. The Magic will make 20 appearances on national television, the maximum allowed by the NBA. "I don't know if it will happen this year or next year," Grant said. "But I guarantee we will win a couple of championships here before I retire."

In Chicago, Pippen led the Bulls to a surprising second-place finish in the Central Division and a hard-fought Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Knicks. But Will Perdue in the middle? Larry Krystkowiak at power forward?

The Charlotte Hornets improved by acquiring Robert Parish and Michael Adams to play key backup roles and could contend in the East.

But don't be surprised if the Pacers emerge when the smoke clears.

Last season, they took the Knicks to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals without a point guard. This season, with Mark Jackson to run the point, a solid, athletic front line, a 7-foot-4 scoring center in Rik Smits and the league's best shooting guard in Reggie Miller, Indiana could reach the NBA Finals.

Also this season, when the Atlanta Hawks win their 13th game, Lenny Wilkens will move ahead of Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach (938) as the league's all-time winningest coach.

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